Budget airline EasyJet says that, from December 2022, it will no longer purchase carbon offset credits and will instead prioritise emissions reduction through investment in emerging technologies.
- EasyJet (LON:EZJ) has announced its plans to reduce its emissions by 78% through the use of new technologies, with the remainder to be removed through carbon capture rather than offset by carbon credits.
- The aviation industry is thought to account for 3.5% of anthropogenic climate change, while its reliance on carbon credits has been widely criticised for failing to deliver meaningful progress.
- As the sector faces increasing pressure, emerging technologies will receive more attention. Their capacity to truly decarbonise aviation, however, remains a significant challenge.
EasyJet’s sustainability roadmap
EasyJet’s latest Roadmap to Net Zero by 2050 focuses on six priority areas, including fleet renewal, improvements in operational efficiency and airspace modernisation as well as the use of emissions reduction technologies.
Aligning with the Science-based Targets Initiative’s (SBTi) recommendations for the sector, the airline will transition its investment from external carbon offsetting into support for the development and implementation of direct emissions reduction efforts. These will include using sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and hydrogen-powered jet engines in contribution to its overall goal of reducing emissions by 78%, as well as investments in carbon capture technology to remove the remaining 22%.
According to EasyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren, “today we’re the first airline to outline an ambitious roadmap in which zero carbon emission technology plays a key role to take us to net zero emissions by 2050 and ultimately to zero carbon emission flying across our entire fleet.”
Sustainable aviation: EasyJet and carbon offsets
Prior to its latest announcement, EasyJet had planned to offset an annual 2.7 million tonnes of CO2 emissions by purchasing carbon offset credits. Through this scheme, it claims to have offset almost 8.7 million tonnes of CO2 between November 2019 and June 2022.
It has, however, received significant backlash for this focus on offsetting, rather than reducing, its emissions. Greenpeace, for example, has publicly disregarded carbon offsets as a cheap and unfeasible option for driving the decarbonisation of the aviation sector. Even the Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets has acknowledged the need for emerging technologies to actively address emissions at their source.
Investigative journalists, meanwhile, have exposed the lack of credibility of carbon credits purchased by airlines including Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL), British Airways (LON:IAG.I) and United Airlines (NASDAQ:UAL) as well as EasyJet.
Their analysis of 10 offsetting projects revealed that the majority were not delivering their promised benefits, largely due to methodological failings but with one instance of a scheme being managed by two illegal logging companies that were continuing to cut down ancient and rare trees.
This criticism is not unique to the aviation industry, with carbon credits facing broader questions as to whether they deliver additional, permanent and verifiable emissions reduction. These issues become even more concerning when we consider the fact that the top buyers of carbon credits are those operating within high-emissions sectors such as aviation, oil and gas or other heavy industries.
Hard-to-abate industries use carbon offsets as a way to technically meet their sustainability requirements while effectively continuing their business as usual. This lack of transparency is being addressed however, as voluntary frameworks such as the SBTi – which only allows for between 5 and 10% of emissions to be offset by credits – are increasingly being incorporated in both regulatory requirements and investor expectations.
Investing in net zero aviation
EasyJet’s decarbonisation roadmap, despite the promise of its commitments to take a more internal focus to its emissions reduction, does not come without its limitations.
Hydrogen-powered planes, for example, are in the very early stages of their development and are not yet commercially viable, while SAF comes with high costs in addition to technological limitations and socio-economic issues such as the diversion of crop stocks that could otherwise be used to provide food, energy or road transport fuels.
There has been growing support for the aviation sector’s decarbonisation, with the First Movers Coalition having recently launched its collaboration with financial actors to mobilise capital towards the net zero transition of hard-to-abate industries while several airlines have made significant investments in SAF.
According to the Mission Possible Partnership, an alliance of climate leaders aiming to decarbonise the most emissions intensive industries, net zero aviation could be achieved by 2050. It acknowledges, however, that this will only become a reality with the help of several technologies that are yet to be fully developed or scaled, annual investment of approximately $300 billion, and the willingness of the sector’s players to pay a premium of up to 50% for emissions-reducing options.
EasyJet’s latest announcement reflects the growing pressure on airlines to turn their decarbonisation efforts inwards. Although other airlines may follow its lead in giving emissions reduction technologies more attention, the aviation industry still faces several major challenges on its journey to net zero.